‘Justice League’ team chemistry tops some muddled special effects, lackluster villain
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: Chris Terrio, Zach Snyder, Josh Whedon
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, and Ciaran Hinds
“Justice League” – There is no “I” in team.
When confronted by a selfish player, a coach may use that sports proverb to help illustrate that looking out for No. 1 may prove fatal to the team’s success. Now, if the team has one, some or a collection of self-centered basketball, baseball, football, volleyball, soccer, or insert-your-sport-here players, the end result could be a lost game or perhaps, a lost season.
In the movies, an individual superhero might not be self-regarding, but he or she may just not be capable of saving the world from a malevolent extraterrestrial on his or her own, but a team – working together as one – could be the planet’s only hope.
In March 2016, many, many comic book movie fans conjured up very little hope for the DC Extended Universe’s (DCEU) future after a depressing and disjointed “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) arrived in theatres. Apparently in the comics, Batman and Superman fought one another, but in director Zack Snyder’s film version, the motivation for this super-tussle was terribly forced, as the entire narrative seemed to only serve as a convoluted means to form a big screen Justice League, hence the second half of the film’s title.
Twenty months later, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are back on-screen and act as a pair of super-coaches, as they attempt to recruit The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to save Earth from Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a powerful alien known as a conqueror of worlds. If you thought Steppenwolf was only a band from the late 1960s and early 1970s, you are not alone, but no, in this film, this born-to-be-wild, 12-foot baddie sports a horned helmet and wields a glowing-orange executioner’s axe to cut down his foes.
It turns out that Steppenwolf returns to Earth to claim three mother boxes, which are explained as sources of power or energy or something, but when combined into one, they form The Unity. All one has to know is that The Unity is really, really bad news, so Batman and Wonder Woman have very little time to pull together their super-team and put an end to Steppenwolf’s plans.
With a runtime of just two hours, the film cannot afford to waste time, as it catches us up on the Caped Crusader’s and Diana Prince’s latest adventures and introduces us to The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. Snyder is judicious in highlighting each of their powers and injecting some appreciated camp and humor during the picture’s first 45 minutes. He also needs to establish menace and danger with Steppenwolf, and he effectively accomplishes all of these tasks. Sure, additional precious minutes of character backstory would have been appreciated, but the quick pacing and crystal clear, concise narrative lanes are vast improvements over “Batman v Superman”, in which brooding tones and confusing scenes plagued that film’s first hour.
This film’s camp and humor gladly continue throughout the entire picture, as Miller’s Flash plays up his inexperienced rookie routine who incrementally becomes more confident as a hero, while also delivering frank moments of disbelief during battles with weird alien antagonists. Meanwhile, Momoa’s Aquaman exudes machismo, a certain surfer/motorcycle gang member mix, and after the movie, one might swear that he said “I dig it” about a half dozen times. Then again, he might not have said it even once, but his cool guy bravado certainly resonates.
Fisher’s Cyborg is the least comfortable with his abilities and takes a more cerebral, cautious approach. Since his body is now meshed with Kryptonian machinery that sends unknown impulses to his brain, one can understand that purposeful restraint can rule his days. Batman and Wonder Woman are the glue that holds this new alliance together, and Affleck’s and Gadot’s iconic characters learn more about what makes each other tick and experience some growth against their own personal setbacks. The film does not allocate enough time to explore more introspection, but carves out plenty of moments of authentic character chemistry between the five leads and highlights each of their individual strengths that, of course, blend into team harmony. Snyder also includes some real surprises, one of his signature trademarks.
This is an entertaining group of heroes to watch interact on the big screen. Albeit, in the film’s third act, they fight for Earth’s survival in a cloudy, artificial special effects fishbowl. In fact, the background environment during the closing clash with Steppenwolf and his army of parademons (who are essentially six-foot flying insects) closely resembles some of the worst green screen moments from any of the “Resident Evil” films. Meanwhile, the laws of physics become hugely questioned when a flying Cyborg tosses Aquaman across the sky, as this man from the sea stabs a random “bug” with his trusty trident and then crashes into an abandoned factory. In another instance, Batman catches The Flash with a grappling hook, but one might wonder how The Dark Knight’s eye-hand coordination matches the speed of light.
The muddled special effects – which caused problems in “Batman v Superman” and “Wonder Woman” (2017) – continue their disappointing path in this film too, and the villain does not exactly inspire fear or vitriol either. These are low points, but the comic book protagonists do form a charismatic justice league, a highly appealing and enjoyable lineup, and hey, there is no “I” in this team. Like any great team, they lean on each other’s strengths, while the film’s shortcomings do not feel as important.
Now, are we sure that this particular Steppenwolf does not play music and have a cousin named Bachman-Turner Overdrive? I’m asking for a friend.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively